Why run­ning is so ben­e­fi­cial for older women

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - CAROLEE BELKIN WALKER Wash­ing­ton Post

Just as some things in life get eas­ier with age, in­evitably, there are other things that get harder.

Im­por­tant things, like re­gen­er­at­ing bone den­sity. It’s not ex­actly the hottest new trend for look­ing and feel­ing young and healthy in our 50s, but it should be.

For many women, find­ing ways to re­gen­er­ate bone den­sity through­out our 20s and into our later years isn’t al­ways in­tu­itive or even some­thing we think much about.

That’s when run­ning, even into the post­menopause years, and other high-im­pact and weight-bear­ing forms of ex­er­cise can be cru­cial, says Ranit Mishori, a pro­fes­sor of fam­ily medicine at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s School of Medicine.

Al­though women aren’t con­sid­ered to be in menopause un­til they’ve gone 12 months with­out a pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Aging, most women be­gin the tran­si­tion to menopause be­tween the ages of 45 and 55, and the process can last seven to 14 years.

That’s be­cause a key fac­tor in menopause is the grad­ual de­crease in some hor­mone lev­els, es­pe­cially es­tro­gen, Mishori says. This de­crease in hor­mone lev­els be­gins as a woman ap­proaches the end of her child­bear­ing years, typ­i­cally in her 40s. Es­tro­gen lev­els can drop so slowly that many women, dis­tracted and busy with chil­dren at home and ac­tive in their ca­reers, might not no­tice the changes un­til menopause or even post­menopause when symp­toms such as hot flashes, weight gain and in­som­nia be­come most prom­i­nent.

Al­though th­ese are the symp­toms that the me­dia might fo­cus on, it’s the bone loss that can be the most dev­as­tat­ing, caus­ing bones to be­come brit­tle and frag­ile, in­clud­ing weight-bear­ing bones such as the hip and spine, Mishori says.

We tend to think of our bones as, well, os­si­fied, but they are liv­ing tis­sues that are con­stantly chang­ing and grow­ing, turn­ing over cells, lay­ing down new bone and re­mov­ing old bone as part of the phys­i­o­log­i­cal process.

By post-menopause, the bal­ance shifts such that we re­move old bone more quickly than we make new bone, lead­ing to an over­all re­duc­tion in body bone mass over time.

Stress on bones

If you can vi­su­al­ize how strength­en­ing your mus­cles makes them big­ger, you’ll have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how our bones can be­come stronger and denser if we put stress on them.

Our bod­ies build bone mass when we ap­ply stress along the full length of our bones, which is what hap­pens when we run, said sports medicine spe­cial­ist and phys­i­cal ther­a­pist Kevin McGuin­ness of Wash­ing­ton Ortho­pe­dics & Sports Medicine. Bones build struc­ture in re­sponse to the stresses ap­plied to them, and for the weight-bear­ing bones, such as those in our legs and hips, you need to ap­ply stresses while up­right, work­ing against grav­ity, in a weight-bear­ing fash­ion, he ex­plained.

“The greater the stress, the greater the bone-build­ing re­sponse,” he said.

Be­cause post­menopausal women lose bone den­sity more quickly than sim­i­larly aged men, they are at greater risk of hip frac­tures, McGuin­ness said. Hip frac­tures in an older woman can cause com­pli­ca­tions that can ham­per in­de­pen­dence and lead to other is­sues, in­clud­ing res­pi­ra­tory and cir­cu­la­tory prob­lems as a re­sult of be­com­ing more bed-bound.

“For women, it is very im­por­tant to build a base of strength and bone den­sity in your 20s and 30s, be­cause it be­comes much harder to gen­er­ate new bone in your 40s, 50s and 60s,” McGuin­ness said. “Not that it’s im­pos­si­ble to build it later in life, it’s just more dif­fi­cult.”

In ad­di­tion to re­build­ing bone den­sity, run­ning is also ex­cel­lent for help­ing women ad­dress some of the other ef­fects of menopause, said Mishori, 51, a run­ner and for­mer triath­lete.

Run­ning can re­duce hot flashes, im­prove sleep and car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion, al­le­vi­ate pain and dis­com­fort as­so­ci­ated with arthritic joints, and even help with cog­ni­tion and de­pres­sion, Mishori said.

“I ab­so­lutely urge women who run to con­tinue run­ning af­ter menopause,” Mishori said. “And there’s no rea­son to not start run­ning in your 50s.”

Start with short dis­tances

Mishori tells her pa­tients that they can start small, work­ing their way up to one mile, then two and maybe even up to a 5K. “I know women who started in their 50s and 60s and are run­ning half-marathons,” she said.

If run­ning isn’t an op­tion, McGuin­ness sug­gests re­sis­tance train­ing (with or with­out weights) and yoga, which can build bone den­sity as well as help main­tain strength and mo­tor con­trol.

If you’ve been a run­ner since your 20s or 30s, Mishori said, you’re go­ing to no­tice dif­fer­ences post-menopause.

For ex­am­ple, the body be­comes less adap­tive at di­gest­ing sug­ars, break­ing down car­bo­hy­drates and reg­u­lat­ing its tem­per­a­ture, Mishori said. This might mean that post­menopausal women con­sider fu­elling longer runs with fruit, such as a ba­nana or dates, or us­ing just half or even a quar­ter of a sport en­ergy gel. And Mishori rec­om­mends bring­ing a frozen head­band on your runs so that as it thaws it slowly re­leases cold wa­ter onto your hair and shirt. And bring light lay­ers, she added.

Aging run­ners, whether ex­pe­ri­enced or not, don’t re­cover as quickly as they once did, said Claire Bartholic, a five-time Bos­ton Marathon qual­i­fier, com­pet­i­tive mas­ters ath­lete, and coach at Run­ners Con­nect, an on­line com­mu­nity of run­ners and coaches.

“If you raced on a Saturday in your younger years, you might have been able to do some speed work a few days later and have no prob­lems,” she said. “Now we need to take our time and get back to some slower run­ning, eas­ier re­cov­ery run­ning, to feel good again.”

Fat slows you down

An­other ef­fect of lower es­tro­gen lev­els is that the body wants to store more fat just as it’s los­ing mus­cle, and fat slows you down, Bartholic said. This is im­por­tant whether or not you’re a com­pet­i­tive run­ner if you en­joy par­tic­i­pat­ing in cer­tain or­ga­nized races that have max­i­mum times per mile.

“You’d rather have lean mus­cle on board to keep you mov­ing faster,” said Bartholic, who rec­om­mends reg­u­lar strength-train­ing ses­sions to all of her run­ners.


Run­ning, even into the post­menopause years, and other high-im­pact and weight-bear­ing forms of ex­er­cise can com­bat bone loss.

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